Iranian-backed militants are operating across the United States mostly unfettered, raising concerns in Congress and among regional experts that these “sleeper cell” agents are poised to launch a large-scale attack on the American homeland, according to testimony before lawmakers.
Iranian agents tied to the terror group Hezbollah have already been discovered in the United States plotting attacks, giving rise to fears that Tehran could order a strike inside America should tensions between the Trump administration and Islamic Republic reach a boiling point.
Intelligence officials and former White House officials confirmed to Congress on Tuesday that such an attack is not only plausible, but relatively easy for Iran to carry out at a time when the Trump administration is considering abandoning the landmark nuclear deal and reapplying sanctions on Tehran.
There is mounting evidence that Iran poses “a direct threat to the homeland,” according to Rep. Peter King (R., N.Y.), a member of the House Homeland Security Committee and chair of its subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence.
A chief concern is “Iranian support for Hezbollah, which is active in the Middle East, Latin America, and here in the U.S., where Hezbollah operatives have been arrested for activities conducted in our own country,” King said, referring the recent arrest of two individuals plotting terror attacks in New York City and Michigan.
“Both individuals received significant weapons training from Hezbollah,” King said. “It is clear Hezbollah has the will and capability.”
After more than a decade of receiving intelligence briefs, King said he has concluded that “Hezbollah is probably the most experienced and professional terrorist organization in the world,” even more so than ISIS and Al Qaeda.
Asked if Iran could use Hezbollah to conduct strikes on the United States, a panel of experts including intelligence officials and former White House insiders responded in the affirmative.
“They are as good or better at explosive devices than ISIS, they are better at assassinations and developing assassination cells,” said Michael Pregent, a former intelligence officer who worked to counter Iranian influence in the region. “They’re better at targeting, better at looking at things,” and they can outsource attacks to Hezbollah.
“Hezbollah is smart,” Pregent said. “They’re very good at keeping their communications secure, keeping their operational security secure, and, again, from a high profile attack perspective, they’d be good at improvised explosive devices.”
Others testifying before Congress agreed with this assessment.
“The answer is absolutely. We do face a threat,” said Emanuele Ottolenghi, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who has long tracked Iran’s militant efforts. “Their networks are present in the Untied States.”
Iran is believed to have an auxiliary fighting force or around 200,000 militants spread across the Middle East, according to Nader Uskowi, a onetime policy adviser to U.S. Central Command and current visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
At least 50 to 60 thousand of these militants are “battle tested” in Syria and elsewhere.
“It doesn’t take many of them to penetrate this country and be a major threat,” Uskowi said. “They can pose a major threat to our homeland.”
While Iran is currently more motivated to use its proxies such as Hezbollah regionally for attacks against Israel or U.S. forces, “those sleeper cells” positioned in the United States could be used to orchestrate an attack, according to Brian Katulis, a former member of the White House National Security Council under President Bill Clinton.
“The potential is there, but the movement’s center of focus is in the region,” said Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Among the most pressing threats to the U.S. homeland is Hezbollah’s deep penetration throughout Latin America, where it finances its terror activities by teaming up with drug cartels and crime syndicates.
“Iran’s proxy terror networks in Latin America are run by Tehran’s wholly owned Lebanese franchise Hezbollah,” according to Ottolenghi. “These networks are equal part crime and terror” and have the ability to provide funding and logistics to militant fighters.
“Their presence in Latin America must be viewed as a forward operating base against America’s interest in the region and the homeland itself,” he said.
These Hezbollah operatives exploit loopholes in the U.S. immigration system to enter America under the guise of legitimate business.
Operatives working for Hezbollah and Iran use the United States “as a staging ground for trade-based and real estate-based money laundering.” They “come in through the front door with a legitimate passport and a credible business cover story,” Ottolenghi said.
The matter is further complicated by Iran’s presence in Syria, where it has established not only operating bases, but also weapons factories that have fueled Hezbollah’s and Hamas’s war on Israel.
Iran’s development of advanced ballistic missile and rocket technology—which has continued virtually unimpeded since the nuclear deal was enacted—has benefitted terror groups such as Hezbollah.
“Iran is increasing Hezbollah’s capability to target Israel with more advanced and precision guided rockets and missiles,” according to Pregent. “These missiles are being developed in Syria under the protection of Syrian and Russian air defense networks.”
In Iraq, Iranian forces “have access to U.S. funds and equipment in the Iraqi Ministry of Defense and Iraq’s Ministry of Interior,” Pregent said.
The Trump administration has offered tough talk on Iran, but failed to take adequate action to dismantle its terror networks across the Middle East, as well as in Latin American and the United States itself, according to CAP’s Katulis.
“The Trump administration has talked a good game and has had strong rhetoric, but I would categorize its approach vis-à-vis Iran as one of passive appeasement,” said Katulis. “We simply have not shown up in a meaningful way.”
According to recent events in Iran, it would appear that Mr Katulis may have underestimated the value of sanctions against Iran.
An ongoing currency crisis and high levels of unemployment are pushing Iran to the brink of the civil war, with ordinary citizens speaking of their fury at the endemic corruption and financial mismanagement which is blighting their lives.
With prices spiralling and President Hassan Rouhani at loggerheads with US opposite number Donald Trump, things got even worse this week with the reimposition of tough economic sanctions aimed at further undermining the Islamic fundamentalist republic.
Measures which target cars, gold and other metals trading, as well as the government’s ability to buy US dollars, came into force today.
Breaking on #IranUpdate,
100 thousand of anti regime protestors who were watching the football match are leaving the stadium and all of them are chanting "death to the dictator, death to Khamenei, death to Rouhani, and Islamic regime must get lost."#Iran#IranProtests pic.twitter.com/etNpc6VVwG
— Raman Ghavami (@Raman_Ghavami) August 3, 2018
The US has acted after Mr Trump pulled out of the JPCA nuclear agreement earlier this year, the deal which eased sanctions against Iran in exchange for no longer embarking on nuclear weapons development.
The Iranian rial has lost half of its value against the US dollar on the unofficial market this year, while the price of fruit and vegetables has increased by 50 percent since the start of the year.
In the current economic climate, low-income families are struggling to put food on the table. One woman, speaking to the Financial Times as she paid over the odds for a lettuce and a cabbage, said: “God damn this regime and its corrupt rulers.
“They have sent their children to the US and Canada while making us poorer every day.”
— Lisa Daftari (@LisaDaftari) August 6, 2018
Recent months have been marked with protests across Iran on issues ranging from water shortages to joblessness, and the Trump administration is partly motivated by a desire to trigger a popular uprising and consequent regime change – something implied by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a speech delivered last month in which he characterised the country’s rulers as a “mafia”.
More than 6k buse drivers in Tehran have been waiting for 24 hours to get fuel. But the contractor refuses to provide their need because the gov hasn’t paid back its debts to the company.
Tens of thousands of people waiting for these buses to go to work etc.#Iran pic.twitter.com/UDR60Xnntt
— Raman Ghavami (@Raman_Ghavami) August 5, 2018
The commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari has acknowledged the gravity of the situation, declaring that “domestic weaknesses and threats are more serious” than the foreign military threat posed by the US or other countries.
The rank-and-file are infuriated by allegations of corruption, while reformist and hardline politicians routinely accuse each other of fraud and mismanagement.
Ali, 61, a former member of the Revolutionary Guards in the city of Amol, said:
“Corruption is so high that it has penetrated everywhere.
“Why should we struggle with daily issues and risk our lives to fill the pockets of corrupt people?”
In anticipation of the sanctions, wealthier Iranians have been stockpiling basic commodities and buying up gold and cars in an bid to protect the value of their savings.
#BREAKING: Despite deployment of hundreds of security forces of #Iran's Islamic regime to #Gowhardasht, #Karaj, tens of thousands of people have come to streets of the town to protest against the regime now. They chant "#Khamenei, shame on you, leave #Iran".#IranProtests pic.twitter.com/XBRwPsK73W
— Babak Taghvaee (@BabakTaghvaee) August 4, 2018
However, less affluent people do not have this option and their complaints are increasingly taking on an anti-establishment tone.
Ali, a 19-year-old shop worker, said: “If I see protesters in the streets, I will join them.”
He explained that he worked 16-hour days, receiving one million tomans (£175) a month. A toman is equivalent to 10 rials.
He added: “But the owner of this shop receives 90m tomans in rent every month without working. Why? Is this a fair system?”
Another shopkeeper said: “Before, people who could not afford to eat meat were at least having bread and yogurt.
“But now even yogurt is becoming unfordable for some families.”
Experts have warned Mr Trump’s sanction mean a price of a barrel of oil could rocket to $90.
Here is Shiraz, #Iran
People do not want this regime. They chant:
— mahsti25 (@mahsti25metana1) August 4, 2018
Morgan Stanley estimates Iranian production will drop to 2.7 million barrels a day by the fourth quarter, with more than a million barrels taken offline.
James E Windsor, Overpasses News Desk
August 20th, 2018